Mel Smith, Olympia High School’s swim coach, calls Zach Walker a “free spirit.”
Without a doubt, Walker has his sport in perspective.
Despite a strong desire to break the Bears’ 50-yard freestyle record during this weekend’s Class 4A state swimming and diving championships at King County Aquatics Center in Federal Way, the slender 6-foot-3 senior spends only a part of the year racing.
Unlike many top high school swimmers, Walker doesn’t swim for a club program.
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“As much as I love it, I’m already in the water enough,” he said. “If I swam year-round, I’d turn into a living prune.”
Fortunately, Smith said, Walker has a physique that makes him a natural.
“He’s done a lot of work, but he also has great genetics,” Smith said. “He’s tall, has big hands and big feet. There’s a reason Michael Phelps is so great beyond all the effort he’s put in. On a different level, it’s the same with Zach.”
Walker got into swimming in sixth grade, and swam for the Tumwater Valley Athletic Club’s youth team for a while.
“I always liked being in the water, and it was something my parents were excited about,” he said. “I tried soccer, but I didn’t feel that as much as I did swimming.”
By his freshman year at Olympia, he was an alternate on the Bears’ relay teams at the state meet. This year, as a senior, he’ll swim in four events: the 50 free, 100 free, 200 medley relay and 200 free relay.
He points to three of last season’s seniors who were role models his first three years, as well as relay partners: Andrew Wright, Eli Champagne and Matthew Kamimura.
“They inspired me to become what I am today,” Walker said.
In the 4A West Central District championships two weekends back, Walker finished second in the 50 free in 22.46 seconds — a half-second behind Tahoma’s Nick Ainsworth. Walker’s best is 22.17; he needs to knock a second off that mark to claim the Olympia school record.
“A school record would be an amazing feat,” he said. “My approach, though, is ‘I’m here now, let’s see how this goes.’ ”
He’ll also compete in the 100 free — where he swam a season-best 50.38 to finish sixth at districts. Walker will join a trio of younger swimmers — freshman Andrew Liu, and sophomores Jordan Kamimura and Andrew Matthews in the 200 medley relay. Olympia will also send Walker, Kamimura, senior James Waltz and freshman Adam Skjervold to the blocks in the 200 free relay.
Walker likes the sense of team swimming that relays foster.
“It’s a collective. Not just you. Not just the guy in front of you or the guy after you. It heightens the satisfaction of winning,” he said.
Walker also credits teammate Diego Burrows, who gets a ride with him to and from most of the Bears’ practices at Evergreen, with keeping him focused.
“Diego’s one of my best friends,” he said. “He’s the kind of guy you can get through tough days with. We go to practice together and leave together. He’s fighting through all the same pain.”
WIAA BOYS STATE STATE SWIMMING AND DIVING CHAMPIONSHIPS
At King County Aquatic Center, Federal Way
2016 team champions: Class 4A — Newport. Class 3A — Bellevue. Class 2A — Anacortes.
Schedule: Friday — 4A prelims, 9:45 a.m.; 2A prelims, 2 p.m.; 3A prelims 6:30 p.m. Saturday — 4A finals, 9:30 a.m.; 2A finals, 2:15 p.m.; 3A finals, 7 p.m.
The skinny: 4A — Olympia senior Zach Walker (50 free, 100 free) and sophomore Jordan Kamimura (100 breast) are the only two locals to qualify for individual events. The Bears also send their 200 medley relay and 200 free relay.
3A — North Thurston and Shelton both have several athletes competing. North Thurston’s Jeffrey Harn, a junior, is the third-seeded swimmer in 3A in the 100 free (48.49 seconds). Harn also qualified individually for the 50 free, and is seeded ninth. The Highclimbers will, again, send multiple divers in senior Zach Netzel (seeded seventh), senior Mikey Willis (13th) and freshman Tyler Crossan (21st). The Rams have four individual qualifiers competing across five events. Shelton has four individuals competing in two events. Both teams qualified in the 200 and 400 free relays.
2A — Christian Provost, a River Ridge junior, is seeded eighth in the 50 free (23.14 seconds), and also qualifed in the 100 free. River Ridge junior Cato Cannizzo qualified in the 100 fly, and the Hawks also send their 200 free relay team.
Tickets: Daily passes are $10 for adults, $8 for students/senior citizens. Tournament passes are $16 for adults, $11 for students/senior citizens.